You Can Lead a Bushwick Crowd to Water But…
The Man in the Long Black Coat turns through the entryway and enters the Bushwick bar. Other than a few gaggles of gentrifiers, it’s pretty empty. The walls are festooned with leftwing slogans, but the beer prices don’t match the decor. Nor should they, really. This is all for show, the man decides. It’s a Kafka short story, The Department of Protests. You see the bureaucrat, you sign up to rally about your favorite issue: the weather, catcalls, cruelty to pet marmosets. Anything you want, really, unless that might impede the steady flow of income upward from the working class to the gentrifiers’ parents.
This bar has a reputation for things starting late. Nublu late. Which explains why nothing’s happening yet. The man decides to take a walk around the neighborhood, a dubious choice considering that it’s nine in the evening. On his way out, he almost bumps head-on into a friend, who’s carrying her axe. They greet each other; he swings the door wide so that she can make her way in. “See ya in a bit,” he says brightly.
He’s lying. He has no intention of coming back til showtime. When he reaches the corner, he decides to take a left on Irving for once. Walking toward Myrtle, he stops in at a couple of delis to see if they have his favorite beer. But they don’t carry it.
The Man in the Long Black Coat doesn’t even like beer. But it’s cheaper than anything available at the yuppie wine stores – which at this hour are still open, even if nobody’s in there. Just as well, he thinks. The sidewalks may be deserted at this hour, but the cops always put undercovers out in front of the luxury condos.
Past the park, a guy with a backpack approaches from behind. Suddenly he’s a little too close for comfort. The man weighs the possibility of danger, pulls to the right, then with a quick backward glance takes his phone out of his pocket. He puts it to his ear. “What?” he asks sharply.
There’s nobody at the other end. But that doesn’t matter. “I’m on Irving and, um, Hart Street,” the man says with a hint of aggravation. He prepares for plan B.
But there’s no need. The guy with the backpack – a blue-collar kid in cheap work boots, jeans and a vinyl winter coat – passes on the left. The man puts his phone back as the kid shuffles along.
As he gets closer to Myrtle, the man brightens as he passes a couple of lowlit Ecuadorian delis. Brightly colored bags of snacks, tropical fruit soda and dried chiles are visible from outside. The man considers going in – he’s running out of hot pepper at home – but decides it would look weird if he brought a bag of groceries into the bar. Out here the new arrivals don’t shop anywhere but Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, or from the expensive Korean delis.
He turns around when he hits Myrtle, retracing his steps, one eye over his shoulder. Luxury condos, undercover cops or not, this is still a dangerous neighborhood. But none of the delis have his first choice of beer – and by now he could use one.
Returning to the bar, his timing turns out to be perfect. The roughly eighteen members of Funkrust Brass Band file from the back room to the front: first the reeds, then brass, then the drummers. They all wear black costumes. The horn players’ valves are all lit up in white like little Christmas trees. Their frontwoman has a bullhorn and leads the band in a chant as the horns pump out a catchy march. They have a theme song! Slowly, one by one, they march back to the inner room.
Several of the customers from the front follow them in, mystified. If they’ve ever seen a street band before, they’ve never been this close. And this group is very theatrical. In formation like a phalanx of soldiers, they crouch, and leap, and strike poses. One of their trumpet players climbs way up by the PA system, balances precariously on something extruding and plays a mean solo. For a moment, the crowd is into it.
For a band who don’t tour much or even play out a lot, they’re very tight. Just as impressive, the man thinks, is that half of their members are women. Even by punk rock standards, that’s noteworthy. Although they use a lot of minor keys, their songs are closer to punk than Balkan music – and they’re catchy.
The man finds himself nodding along as the trombones blaze and snort and the drums rumble. “Why are we alone?” the group sing in unison throughout one of the quieter vamps. Out of biological necessity, the man wants to tell them. If we were telepathic, it would kill us. If we could feel everyone’s pain, we’d be dead in a nanosecond. But he doesn’t say anything.
The novelty wears off, the crowd starts to filter out and two catchy, thumping numbers later, the band is done. Though what they play is obviously dance music – or at least you can march to it – nobody dances. Afterward, their singer mingles with what’s left of the crowd, handing out buttons and taking emails. The kids seems receptive – that’s a good sign, the man thinks.
Greek Judas play afterward and pretty much completely clear the room. The man finds this amusing, considering that they packed Hank’s the last time they played the place. But this is Bushwick, and the newcomers obviously have no use for loud heavy metal versions of Middle Eastern flavored crime rhymes from the 1930s Greek gangster underworld.
From the first few notes of the first song, it’s clear that singer Quince Marcum – who sings in Greek even if he doesn’t speak it – is way too low in the mix. Afterward, he turns up – and so do his bandmates. Wade Ripka eventually switches from guitar to lapsteel for extra marauding resonance while Strat player Adam Good plays gritty chromatics and some oud voicings – which makes sense considering he’s also an oudist. A mask hangs from the back of Marcum’s head; Good wears a Batman-style mask. Bassist Nick Cudahy plays simple, hypnotic intervals on a big, beautiful Gibson Firebird model and sports a deer mask. Drummer Chris Stromquist is also some equine creature, and makes it look easy as he follows the songs’ tricky meters. He should be the group’s Minotaur – he knows this labyrinth by heart.
Marcum gamely explains a few of the narratives – a guy lusting after a cute Romany girl in the adjacent public bath; two smalltime crooks planning on resuming their music careers once they get out of jail; and a crack whore on the streets of Athens in the 1920s. But there’s hardly anyone there to explain them to. The band soldier on, determined to have some fun even if nobody else is there to share it with them. That’s ok, the man thinks. This isn’t their turf anyway. Or mine either. After their last song, he exits without a word.